It was Jarvis Smith’s first time going out with someone he met online. For Jessie Smith, it was not.
Jessie had gone on several dates — most of them bad, some of them horrible and all of them unsuccessful, she said — before she and Jarvis decided to meet up in person.
“I was ready to throw the towel in and go back to just being a career girl,” she said.
Jarvis picked a spot in the middle of their places: Bryant-Lake Bowl, an old-school bowling alley and restaurant in Uptown. A hot spot for those falling in love or, in the case of Jessie, a reluctant first date.
Getting ready that night, she thought about bailing out.
“I did not want to go,” she said. “Now, I look back and thank goodness I did go.”
Jessie and Jarvis immediately hit it off. Jarvis liked how down-to-earth she was. Jessie appreciated how thoughtful he was. When she accidentally spilled her drink, he sprang into action to clean it up.
And they both liked the warm atmosphere, the eclectic crowd and, of course, the bowling.
The only thing that was off that night was Jarvis’ bowling game. He ended up losing to Jessie, unexpectedly, or perhaps on purpose.
Jessie, who admittedly is not a great bowler, said she still doesn’t know if he threw the game. Jarvis maintains he didn’t.
“I was really trying. … All my friends will tell you, I don’t lose,” he said. “It was just one of those days.”
That night, their first date, was almost three years ago. Last fall, the couple tied the knot, taking their engagement photos at — where else — Bryant-Lake Bowl.
New couples, same old place
Smack dab in the middle of the bustling stretch near West Lake Street and Bryant Avenue South, with a bright retro red neon sign lighting up its name, Bryant-Lake Bowl is a widely recognized Uptown mainstay.
It’s been featured by the likes of City Pages, Twin Cities Eater and Foursquare as one of the city’s top spots for dates.
“It’s definitely been a first date spot for a very long time,” said Kim Bartmann, the restaurant’s owner.
With a restaurant and bar in the front and eight lanes of bowling in the back, plus a small theater, the mood is somewhere between a dive bar and a wine bar with the regular rumble of balls and the constant crash of pins.
Although new couples often find themselves at Bryant-Lake Bowl, there’s really nothing new about it. Lovebirds have flocked to the restaurant for the past 25 years. They’ve been going to the bowling alley even longer.
The alley has been around since the 1930s. Bartmann acquired the space, and the history that came with it, in the early ’90s.
“Many people over the years have come in and said they went on their first date at the bowling alley,” she said. “Or they come in and say, ‘My grandma and grandpa went on their first date at the bowling alley.’”
Zea Asklof, a 39-year-old living in south Minneapolis, grew up on Bryant Avenue and remembers going to the bowling alley as a kid.
Years later, Zea met Robb Asklof, 42, in a volleyball league they both played in. Although she started to get feelings for him, Zea almost ended their budding relationship after Robb’s friends took his phone away when Zea called him at the bar.
Zea eventually asked Robb out, but only after reading her horoscope, which called on her to give someone a second chance. It was, quite literally, written in the stars when Zea and Robb spent one of their first dates at Bryant-Lake Bowl.
In 2014, a decade after their fateful meeting, the couple spent their wedding reception at the bowling alley. Besides her tax status, not much had changed.
“The actual bowling is exactly the same as I remember it,” Zea said.
That’s because Bartmann has kept much of the alley’s original features.
The pin setting and ball retrieval system, built back in the ’50s, lets players see the ball rolling back to them. The alley shuns the typical computer scoring system. Players are required to keep score the old-fashioned way with a No. 2 pencil and paper.
It’s as straightforward as it gets. Players grab their own shoes and ball and wait to snag a lane when one opens up.
The long-lasting character is comforting, Zea said, especially in an area that’s seen a flood of apartment buildings, new restaurants and trendy bars on the surrounding blocks.
“With all of the change that’s been happening in (the) Uptown area, Bryant-Lake (Bowl) — as much as it’s changed — it still has remained the same,” she said.
Perhaps the only thing that isn’t a relic of the past is the food. Bartmann, after all, is a two-time James Beard Award semifinalist. The menu, not to mention the extensive tap list, would put your typical bowling alley grub in the gutter.
Amy Rolando, a matchmaker with Twin Cities-based Pairings Group, has recommended the restaurant to many of her clients. She said the trifecta of good food, active entertainment and a funky atmosphere makes the restaurant a perfect place for couples looking to make the next move.
“Bryant-Lake Bowl really has a sweet spot for a first date venue,” she said. “It ticks off all the boxes.”
For Bartmann, it all comes down to a simple formula.
“I think bowling is a really good first date because it gives you something to do, and you find out if the person you’re potentially going to end up with can add to 10,” she said.
Competition, for those who want it
On a typical Monday night in August, Bryant-Lake Bowl is crowded with couples lounging on large metal benches while wait staff dash back and forth, providing full food service to the lanes.
That’s because Monday is Cheap Date Night at Bryant-Lake Bowl, a food, wine and bowling combo that usually packs the house, said Amanda LaVoie, a manager at the restaurant.
“We get all kinds [of people],” she said. “It’s sort of an institution at this point.”
It’s set to a picturesque backdrop: Old wooden lanes with modern geometric detailing, soft yellow walls with aqua-green trim and, overlooking the alley, “Bryant-Lake” spelled out in cherry red.
Packs of pairs chat, laugh and flirt in between their frames, sometimes encouraging one another or, more often, competing.
Geoff Clifford, 26, and Sophie Deslauriers, 25, were bowling with ice cream on the line. The loser had to pay.
The couple, who have been together for nearly five years, said they will bet on “literally anything you could turn into a competition,” including mini golf, sports and “The Bachelor.”
Others, like Matthew Fenske, 29, and Kristi Moua, 27, of St. Paul, are a little less cutthroat.
When Fenske bowled a strike, Moua cheered from her spot at the scoring table. When Moua’s ball kept drifting off one side, the pair strategized about improving her roll.
They don’t know who ended up winning. And they couldn’t quite figure out the do-it-yourself scoring. It was their first time at the alley.
“We always said at some point we would go, and tonight was the night,” said Fenske, who liked the old-school vibes. “This place, in a non-offensive way, smells old.”
On another lane, Samantha Harmston, a third-year college student, and Matt Hillard, a recent graduate, were finishing up.
After beating Hillard on her final roll, Harmston played it coy.
“It’s the wine,” she said.
Whatever it is that draws couples to Bryant-Lake Bowl, it’s definitely there.
“There’s something magical,” Bartmann said. “All I can say about that, is [Bryant-Lake Bowl] is where I met my wife.”
The couple is celebrating their five-year anniversary this year.
Bryant-Lake Bowl is where Kate, 37, and Matt Sobraske, 38, spent their first date.
“It’s a special spot for us,” Kate said. “I can’t imagine I would end up with a person who didn’t like the idea of going to a place like Bryant-Lake Bowl.”
When they first met, Kate wasn’t completely enamored with Matt. She thought he was obnoxious.
“He said that bad impression is better than no impression,” she said. “So, he went about pestering me until I remembered who he was.”
But Matt grew on her. The couple has now been married for over a decade.
The little bowling alley and restaurant in Uptown might have had something to do with it.